50 years of tradition: the Snowbirds

Dan Dempsey
Guest Contributor

Fifty years ago, on July 11, Canada’s newest airshow team took to the air for their first major airshow at CFB Moose Jaw.

The newly named “Snowbirds” – following in the footsteps of such eminent predecessors as the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Siskins, Royal Canadian Navy Grey Ghosts, RCAF Golden Hawks, and Canadian Armed Forces Golden Centennaires – were destined to become Canadian icons with millions of fans across North America.

The team adopted its name on June 25, 1971, following a “name the team” competition at the base elementary school. We now know that two young students both independently chose the name “Snowbirds” – Douglas Farmer and Cathy Tiller.

The “Saskatchewan Homecoming Air Show” that day was billed as the largest single day airshow in North America that year – and so it was. A total of 52 Canadian Forces aircraft participated in the show supported by 65 technicians with another 15 aircraft from the US Air Force on display.

Also performing were some of the top civilian acts in North America who became good friends with the team – Art Scholl, Al Pietsch, Joe Hughes, and his wing-walker Johnny Kazian to name a few.

A torrential downpour the evening before the show reduced parking spots to the extent that while 45,000 folks made it onto the base that day, another estimated 40,000 did not, being stuck in a traffic jam that stretched 16 miles back through Moose Jaw and down the highway towards Regina when the show started at 1 p.m.

Led by Major Glen Younghusband, the team’s performance that day was the first major airshow of the approximately 2,700 official airshows the team has now flown over the last 50 years across North America.

Hundreds of flypasts have also been flown, including those flown last year and this year under “Operation Inspiration.”

Snowbirds founder Colonel O.B. Philip

Snowbirds founder Colonel O.B. Philip

Proudly watching from the ground that day was the team’s founder, CFB Moose Jaw Base Commander, Colonel O.B. Philp, along with the Commander of Training Command, Major-General Bill Carr, who opened the show followed by a flypast of a combined eight-ship of CF-104s and CF-5s from Cold Lake.

Today we toast Col Philp and his vision, the 11 volunteer instructors who flew on the team that first season, and the group of technicians who supported them during their workups in Moose Jaw. They paved the way for all of the teams who have followed.

As we salute the 1971 team, we extend our congratulations and best wishes to the 2021 Snowbirds who are carrying on the tradition under the challenging COVID restrictions this summer.


1971 Pilots

Major Glen Younghusband
Capt Gord Wallis
Capt Fred McCague
Capt Chester Glendenning
Capt Laurie Illingworth
Capt George Hawey
Capt Mike Marynowski
Capt Lloyd Waterer
Capt Tom Gernack
Capt Bob Sharpe
Capt Doug Zebedee

1971 Groundcrew Volunteers

Sgt Dick Gaff
Sgt Lorne Foster
Cpl Don Anderson
Cpl Wayne Adams
Cpl Al McFadden
Cpl Ed Torfason
Cpl Bob Nixon
Cpl Mike Thompson


Dan Dempsey watched his first airshow as a youngster at RCAF Station Rockcliffe in Ottawa in 1959. From that early exposure grew a passion for flying and airshows that led to a 23-year military career with the Canadian Armed Forces.

A graduate of Royal Roads Military College and the Royal Military College of Canada, his military career includes tours as a jet instructor, demonstration pilot with Canada’s Snowbirds nine-plane aerobatic team, fighter pilot on the CF-104 Starfighter based in Baden-Soellingen, West Germany, and executive assistant to the Commander Air Command.

It was during his second tour as commanding officer of the Snowbirds in 1989 and 1990 that he led the team through their 20th anniversary and 1,000th official performance.

For his contribution to aviation in Canada, he was named to the Maclean’s magazine annual Honour Roll in December 1990.

Dan Dempsey – Hawk One PilotDan – retired from the Canadian Armed Forces in 1993. He is now employed as a pilot by Top Aces Inc, a subsidiary of Discovery Air, which provides dedicated combat support training to the Canadian Armed Forces. He was also honoured to join the Centennial Heritage Flight in 2009, one of five pilots who flew Hawk One, the classic F-86 Sabre in Golden Hawk colours, across Canada in celebration of the nation’s 100th anniversary of powered flight.


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